A Life in Dirty Movies – Wiktor Ericsson (2013)

We live in the age of the throw-away documentary. Perhaps this seems unnecessarily disparaging, and I only mean it partly so, as I love documentaries and am happy that there are many more being made lately; all the same, as anyone with a Netflix account knows, we are awash in films that focus on some semi-niche of reality for 80-100 minutes. My guess is that there are so many being made simply because the barrier to entry is lowest in this corner of cinema city, as unlike much narrative film making, a documentary can often follow a tried (or tired) and true structure as long as it plugs into some topic that has not been addressed in exactly that same way before. Talking heads are cheaper than actors, and “reality” needs much less glamour to mount successfully than fictionalized reality, which often requires a bit of seduction. I have seen a lot of these docs (thanks again to Netflix), and while some are very good, like the recent Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films, many, even when they aren’t bad (like the much overrated Marwencol), tend to feel exploitative and samey. Find some person to latch onto, usually an against-the-system outsider, or an outsider in general, rough out the narrative in a way that at least makes a play toward suspense or a reversal of some kind in the fourth reel, throw in a few talking heads for “context,” and poof, you’ve made a movie.

A Life in Dirty Movies is, in many ways, a cookie from such a cutter. It reflects on the life of Joe Sarno and his wife, Peggy, who made sexploitation films back in the heyday (and really, the only day) of the genre, the 60s and 70s. Now, I am familiar with Mr. Sarno and his films, but I must confess I have not seen any of them, simply because sexploitation bores me silly (aside from the films of Russ Meyer and Doris Wishman). Sarno, called the “Ingmar Bergman of 42nd Street,” made many acknowledged classics of the genre – the reference to Bergman is due to his interest in the interiority of his characters, their relationships, and his emphasis on women and their pleasure. All to the good, and the doc did succeed in making me want to sample his filmography, especially his work made in the late 70s, after sexploitation was no longer a viable genre. Anyone looking for a thorough overview of Mr. Sarno’s biography, his career, or the contextualization of his work within film history as a whole might be disappointed by this film, however. There is some of that, of course, but it is very glancing; the film is really a contemporary portrait of Sarno and his wife, in their final years together. The film takes up Sarno in his late eighties, when he is trying to put together one final project. The star of the film, though, is Peggy, eighteen years his junior and, to a large degree, his mouthpiece and memory. While the film might fail as an educational vehicle, I found the divergences from the norm refreshing, and ultimately enlightening. As a portrait of an artist, it is a rich one, in that it concentrates on what few films about working artists do: how they end up, what they feel their legacy is, and how they manage to live day-to-day, having been on the margins of the mainstream, and success, all their lives. We see the Sarnos at their “summer home,” a quite anonymous apartment in an equally anonymous Swedish apartment block; Peggy talks at length about the personal sacrifices they both made, but she in particular, to take him on as a partner and live the life they did (needless to say, Mom and Dad were not too thrilled about having the young actress marry a sex film director two decades her senior). There is little “dirt” here, as Peggy has few regrets, and believes in the integrity of her husband’s work (although she does not hold back on criticism either). What makes the film compelling is indeed the day-to-day, ambient nature of its unfolding. We get a true sense of how life for an artist gets defined, and defines itself, by way of trying to make a living. One would hardly call a business person or professional before himself to explain, for instance, why he switched out of insurance and became a car salesman, or why he never got to V.P. instead of settling for regional manager. An artist, on the other hand, is always caught partly between reality and ideality, between the contingencies of living and the desire for something other. Sarno, in this regard, has to “answer” (partly to the audience, or society, but in the narrative of the film, to the parents) for why sexploitation is art, and why he made sexploitation at all. In the beginning, of course, it was because he was offered the work, and had experience using a camera. He enjoyed making films, and these were the films he could easily make. Once hardcore pornography became the norm, he was forced to choose; he wasn’t interested in making hardcore, but he also didn’t want to stop making films, and sexploitation had become instantly passe. So, he made some pornography (not very successfully) and also managed to finance, mostly through his father-in-law, further sexploitation features (also not very successful). All artists deal with negotiating the reality of their ideals – indeed, that place between desire/concept/vision and the reality of material execution, often defined by external forces, is the space of art – but this film provides a more poignant than average portrait of what these struggles really look and feel like. Life is a series of exclusions, forced choices, and unexpected detours for all but the “lucky” few; artists simply live this reality in a more self-conscious, heightened, and often frustrated way. The film does a great job of giving us the feel of such a history, but it also builds to a satisfying climax – with Sarno’s death comes, perhaps not paradoxically, the ultimate redemption of his legacy.

Three stars out of five

The Imitation Game – Morten Tyldum (2014)

Ugg, if there is one genre I tend to detest, it is the bio-pic. Why so, you life loving types might ask? Well, settle onto my knee, sonny, and grump along with me for a moment. First of all, most of the time we are being told a story we already know, so there are rarely any surprises involved. This might be tolerable if the subject were portrayed in an interesting fashion. As it is, most often the subjects of such films are slavishly worshiped, great golden men (and rarely women) held aloft for us to cheaply revel in the glow they reflect, all of us puny crudmuffins now suddenly reawakened to our shared “humanity.” Ah yes, who doesn’t want to shave a piece of self-esteem off the ol’ block of the less than flinty Mahatma, or perhaps even J.C. himself? I dare you, my friends, to look back through biographical films made even in just the last twenty years. Will you find a critical viewpoint? Will you find anything that not only makes you reconsider what you knew, but even keeps you awake? I think not. Tedium and self-righteousness do not a happy pairing (nor a happy viewer) make.

Here endeth the preamble-by-way-of-explanation-hinting-at-an-apologia for seeing, and thus commenting on, The Imitation Game. I was convinced to see it by someone who shall remain nameless. But, lo, good news – it is not bad! Yes, I already knew the story of Alan Turing (spelling his name like a proper Alan should). And yes, there is more than a little basking and past-patronizing in the mix. What makes this good, then? Well, it is very well directed. The structure of the film is more sophisticated than most, moving around the chronology in a way that makes emotional impact, and the overall design of the film (the sets, the costuming, the mise-en-scene and camerawork) evokes the era without italicizing or winking. The performances are also good, and Cumberbatch does make a very sympathetic Turing, even when at his prickliest. Perhaps it is Turing’s outsider nature, and his tragic end, that made me more sympathetic than normal. There is plenty to dislike, but more in the mode of “oh, must you, really?” (disappointment) rather than “cripes!” (sigh, eyes rolling). The film often slips into Hollywood heart-string contrivances – as in the cryptographer who, at the first message successfully decoded, discovers his brother is on the ship they are about to let sink (rather than tip their English hands to the Germans). Punches are thrown, yells are exchanged, “Who are you/we to play God?!?” etc. Such things feel like the screenwriter trying to gin up some teacup tempest dramatics in stiff-upper-lipsville. A poor score mars the film as well – then again, ninety percent of scores are poor and unnecessary. Oh well. Yes, this is a positive review.

Three stars out of five

Leviathan – Andrey Zvyagintsev (2014)

Leviathan has aroused considerable controversy in its native Russia, apparently for portraying local authorities and the church in a light less than glowing; the Minister of Culture Vladimir Medinsky accused Zvyagintsev of playing up problems within Russia in order to win foreign accolades. (The Ministry of Culture co-financed the film, so the criticism might seem odd, but Zvyagintsev’s earlier films, particularly The Return, brought international praise and comparisons to Tarkovsky, and were not overtly political). That he has won the foreign accolades is not in doubt, as the film tops many “best of” lists from the past year, yet this is hardly a shocking expose. In fact, Western viewers will no doubt see much that is overly familiar in the corruption portrayed in the film (the fact that the film is fairly subtle and does make Russia look like every other capitalist kleptocracy probably counts against it rather than mitigates). The film concerns Nikolai, a somewhat hot-headed auto mechanic and independent businessman in a small Russian town who happens to own a nice piece of property, generations-old, overlooking an inland sea that is drying up (symbolism alert!). The mayor of the town covets the property, and so requisitions it to build a “community center.” The film portrays the blow-back from the Mayor and his cronies as Nikolai tries to fight the acquisition, with the help of an old friend from Moscow, Dmitriy, a well-connected lawyer. I won’t say much more on specifics, since the slow unfolding of Nikolai’s fate pretty much is the film, but needless to say things work against him, and by the end of the film, he finds himself in dire straits.

There is much to like about the film, most significantly in the open-endedness of many of the sequences, which often softly set us up for one type of payoff and deliver something less expected. Likewise, the portrait of a man against the system is not strident, as by the end viewers could see Nikolai’s afflictions as the result of so much bad luck, general bull-headedness, the course of life playing out or as a top-down conspiracy. It is true that the religious figures in the film don’t fare well, ranging from a kind of bleak “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s” existentialism to providing full-on corrupt moral cover to political misdeeds of all stripes; even so, one gets the sense that the Job-like struggles of the Russian everyman are, in Zvyagintsev’s view, the natural state of things in Russia. In this, the film follows in a long tradition of Russian pessimism (although this particular tale is mostly punishment without the crime). The film has weak areas: the symbolism, such as the Job connection, explicitly referenced within the film, is heavy-handed at times; the Philip Glass style undulating score is weak and grating (although thankfully saved for the beginning and end). You could argue that it’s overly long. I just didn’t find it any more or less compelling than other “grinding a man down” art films of yore. I must say that I often find Russians unsympathetic and cold anyway, so it wasn’t hard for me to buy into this as another entry in the “same old story” of life sucking in Russia.

Three stars out of five

Blackhat – Michael Mann (2015)

I went into Blackhat more than aware that the reviews were tepid to say the least. In fact, most thought it an outright stinker. But Michael Mann has never failed to disappoint before; all he ever need do is pour his special sauce over shots of cities at night, and I’ve been satisfied. Hell, I even thought Miami Vice (the film) was pretty great. Well, it must be said that Blackhat is a very odd film. Mann goes out of his way to keep his sauce bottled, using shaky-cam “docu-style” video instead of Steadicam, and keeping the music, always one of his strong suits, to a bare minimum. Plus, the topic is not exactly his m├ętier, and he definitely feels in old man mode when trying to juice up cyber espionage into something not only watchable, but even explicable. (The actual portrayal of the attacks, while not uninteresting, look like a cross between Tron and that sequence in Scanners where Cameron Vale mind-melds with a modem). The acting is very sedate to the point of clunkiness, and 45 minutes in, things were sagging. Not horribly so, but it just seemed that Mann was way out of his element and struggling, albeit mightily.

Then in the last hour, coincident with most of the digital detritus clearing away, good ol’ fashioned flesh and blood analog issues roared back, and the director was in his element. Call it existential bromance revenge if you must, that is the base alloy, but it is assuredly more than that. Yes, the last hour redeemed everything. Mr. Mann can still shoot action, and make it matter, like few others, and although the cyber-caper underpinnings kept poking through (“He’s using his $75 million to buy tin futures, the bastard!”), and although Chris Hemsworth is not up to the standards of a Colin Farrell, in the end, not even the random deaths of peaceful Indonesian festival-goers could undermine this one. No neon, not many cool electronic tones, and a style more ham-handed than assured, but still gripping and oh so worth it. Nobody has done to-the-death payback like Mr. Mann since Don Siegel.

Three stars out of five

In unrelated news, I also had a chance to see the trailer for Fifty Shades of Grey before the show. It is rated R for “some unusual behavior.”

Foxcatcher – Bennett Miller (2014)

Foxcatcher didn’t set my world on fire, although it did set my sinuses on fire, so I’m probably less inclined to love it simply because of that fact. It’s a film to see for the performances, they’re all good, particularly Channing Tatum, playing an unloveable (although sympathetic) lunk with more nuance than you’d expect. Bennett Miller gets extra points for building the story slowly, using locations well, and for not relying on (or even including) any non-diegetic music. I think his background in documentary has made his fiction films stronger, as Capote surprised me as well. A bit long, but surprisingly, I found it stuck with me throughout the week.

Three stars out of five